Bummin’ in Bogota – Bogota, Colombia

Bummin’ in Bogota

Bogota, Colombia

I didn’t know much about Bogota, or Colombia in general before visiting here except some of the intimidating things I’ve heard:

1. 1/3 or more of the country is controlled by so-called “narco-terrorists;”
2. It is the leading producer and exporter of cocaine;
3. It has over 25,000 violent murders a yea – more than any other country; and the State Department does not recommend traveling here. In fact, U.S. government employees living in Colombia are not allowed to travel by road between major cities. They must fly.

However, as my friends and I have a habit of traveling off the beaten path a bit – Myanmar (Burma), Bosnia, Cambodia, Paraguay, Laos, etc! I’m always very careful and keep myself out of situations that could cause me harm.

As one would expect, Colombia was named after Christopher Columbus. However, he never set foot on Colombian soil. Costa Rica shares this fact. He named my adopted country the “rich coast” but never set foot on Costa Rican land. He knew it had much to offer in terms of its natural beauty, though I guess seeing it just off the coast was enough for him.

Reviewing point #1 above, it is hard to imagine part of my homeland, the United States, being controlled by rebels! New England controlled by some nutty eco-terrorists from Vermont? The west controlled by gun-toting NRA types from Montana? Florida controlled by the Walt Disney Company (oops, already is!)? I don’t know what the people think of that here, except to say they stay away from the trouble spots.

Travelers to Colombia are amazed to find how very normal and well-managed the country is despite the many years of civil war, guerrilla insurgency and illicit drug production – issues that remain today – and politician after politician has yet to conquer. To the uninitiated, Colombia is place of random shootings, kidnappings, drug production and use, and of course, corruption. From my minor experience in a short time, the city appeared as normal as any other large city. While it crams too many people into a fairly small area, suffers from the fumes of cars and trucks that should have been retired many years ago, and is an odd mix of honking horns, spicy Latin music blaring from storefronts and home, it seems to resonate “orderly chaos.”

I was surprised to learn what a beautiful city Bogotá is. It has many parks and gardens, altogether about three times as big as New York’s Central Park. It is a very clean city too. The roads are mostly immaculate, gardens and lawns off highways nicely pruned, and for a city that has succumbed to urban sprawl as much as any, it is fairly well organized.

It is a huge city – larger than I imagined both in geography and inhabitants – with more than 10 million people living in the greater metropolitan area, about 20% of the entire population. It does suffer from smog problems like Los Angeles, however I didn’t find it to be as constantly smog-ridden as that city.

A city well above sea level at about 8,000 feet, it took me a few days to acclimatize. This probably isn’t the best city for people with heart problems. However, being so high the temperatures are always moderate as is the humidity. In fact, temperatures hover in the mid 60s year round and the rainy season is much shorter than in other Latin American cities.

The city center is divided into two very different parts. In fact, when crossing from one section into the other, you almost feel as though you are crossing a national border. The northern section, where the terrain becomes more hilly, and eventually mountainous, is dotted with chic apartments and condominiums, most of which are gated to keep out the undesirable elements of the city. The southern section, much larger than the northern part of the city in terms of population and land, is quintessential Latin American urban sprawl with mostly low-rise, terribly bland buildings. The southern area eventually disintegrates into very poor shantytowns by the time one reaches the southern most part of the city.

Bogotá has a very European feel. In between the very wealthy northern section and the gritty southern area, the downtown area has wide boulevards, ornate buildings, and monuments to many historical figures. The people appear to have their roots in Europe, as one would expect, particularly in their attire: smart, classic business suits and sharp, Italian-designed shoes. These people could be residents of Milan if one didn’t know any better. It was hard to define everyone as Colombian looking. Some people look very European; others definitely have an indigenous appearance, probably descendants of pre-Colombian people. While other countries in the region saw much of their indigenous population wiped out, Colombia still retains a sizeable native populace scattered throughout the country, often in remote areas, or in areas currently controlled by the drug underworld.

I think after living somewhat “provincially” for a while in Costa Rica, Bogotá was a welcome change. The area I was staying in was very upscale – it reminded me of Georgetown in Washington, DC (minus “The Exorcist” of course!)

Bogotá also seems to have everything! In the area I was in, there were dozens of fancy restaurants from Mexican to sushi to Italian and many others. In fact, one restaurant sold crepes and waffles.
On one of my long walks, I came across the most interesting mall (at least to me). When I stumbled on it, I knew it was a mall as it looked similar to many U.S. malls. However, once inside, I realized it was a mall with only computer stores! There were probably fifty or more computer stores in this mall selling everything one could ever need. Several stores specialized in laptops, others dealt with networking; still others sold software. I wish I had brought my computer shopping list!

Like New York, Bogotá is filled with many yellow taxis. In fact, on many streets you’ll see many more taxis than private cars. The taxis here are very small, low to the ground, and their tires are barely bigger than those on my mountain bike! However, they appear to get in and out of Bogotá’s smaller streets pretty well.

Given my concerns about touring the city on my own, during my first full day here I hired a tour guide to show me the sites. Oscar, the guide, has lived in Bogotá all of his life and knew the city from top to bottom. At the top, we went up to Montserrat, the mountain-top overlooking the city, about 2,000 feet up – that’s on top of the 8,000 feet at ground level. Needless to say, the view was dazzling and the mountain had an old church and monastery – and of course souvenir shops! Down into the city, Oscar took me to the “Gold Museum” to see an incredible collection of pre-Colombian gold pieces dating as far back as 5000 B.C. For a mere $3, I got to see the collection with an English-speaking guide. The guide was outstanding and his English was excellent, however he spoke as fast as a New Yorker so I had to listen very carefully to keep up. After a while, though, it became the same old thing: “This is a gold breast plate.” “This is gold jewelry.” There are apparently over 100,000 pieces in the collection – while impressive, thankfully I only saw about 5,000 of them. However, it is an impressive display and vividly portrays the richness and longevity of this country.

Our tour also took us through the “La Candelaria” section of Bogotá, which has the oldest buildings in the city and is the original boundary of the city. It is now a university area with many students on the streets, in the cafes or relaxing in parks among ancient wooden buildings with interesting architecture.

I particularly liked the “Zona Rosa” area, which is much more urban. It has that grimy feel we all know. Truly an area with anything one could want, I enjoyed the hustle and bustle (lots of hustle!) of the Zona Rosa, with shops only the locals visit, modest but nice restaurants and hawkers of all types selling a wide variety of items from their wooden boxes or duffle bags. I found a great steak restaurant in this area. For $7, I had a huge piece of steak, which was one of the best cuts of beef I’ve had outside of Argentina. However, what I liked best about this place is that it was all locals eating there – no “ugly Americans.”

Actually, I saw very few Americans and other Western tourists. I didn’t even see one Japanese tour group with cameras in hand. I would imagine that given the high crime rate (which is apparently decreasing, according to government statistics), part of the country being outside of the control of the government, and with the cocaine business, promoting Bogotá as a tourist destination is not an easy task, even for the most talented tourism official. From what I could tell, most of the tourists seemed to be from other South American countries. I may have seen one or two people I thought were Americans, but no more than that.

The lack of Americans and other tourists is also a factor of the city’s own geography and a lack of marketing the city to rest of the world. Bogotá, for a long time was considered a bit of an isolated city, particularly given the fairly unfriendly terrain that engulfs the city. And, Bogotá hasn’t capitalized on its many interesting tourist activities or invited the outside world in. Perhaps Colombians are not enthusiastic about having many foreign visitors, or more likely, the city’s promoters do not yet feel comfortable promoting Bogotá given its historical and current trouble. Whatever the reason, Bogotá remains a wonderful city to visit.

Bogotá is a city filled with many cultural activities, and more promising, is not overrun by tourists, all trying to do the same activity at any given moment. There are many theaters, dozens of art galleries and about fifty museums. What I particularly like is that there are many bookstores. In fact, one area had about three blocks of bookstores. Another part of the city had a mall filled with bookstores. Despite everything one hears about Colombia, a city filled with bookstores, people with intellectual curiosity, and good food, is worth a visit.

I read in a guide book that “Colombia is a country of smiling people.” I certainly witnessed that in my brief stay here. I saw school kids coming out of their classrooms smiling, parents and their children smiling at each other, and couples smiling in that giddy way we all know.

Three days in Bogotá is not nearly enough time to see everything it has to offer. While many people may have a problem overcoming the many negatives portrayed by the media about Colombia (and certainly with good reason), like any city, do what is sensible and you’ll be fine.

Andrew Mastrandonas, a native-born New Yorker and most recently from Washington, DC, currently lives in Costa Rica where he owns a bed & breakfast and writes about travel and culture.

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